If We’re Talking the Talk, How Come No One’s Walking the Walk?

Matthew Konfirst
Aug 19, 2013

How Linguistics Can Inform the “Climate Debate”

Lately we’ve heard much about the need for scientists to become better communicators.  If climate science were only explained more clearly, the thinking goes, an enlightened populace would rise up in righteous indignation and demand action.  Efforts have focused on developing better analogies for climate phenomena and expunging technical vocabulary that is obscure at best and misleading at worst.  Improving scientists’ communication skills not only benefits lay audiences, but also students and even scientific peers.  (How often have you heard the phrase, “As you can clearly see…” while a presenter points to a PowerPoint slide overflowing with a crazy hodge-podge graph collage?)  While scientists should invest time into honing their presentation abilities, this alone will certainly not be enough to trigger action on climate change.

The problem may actually be how the public interprets media coverage of climate science.  Rather than internalizing the latest technical details, they are instead making inferences about why the issue is receiving attention in the first place.  Additional meaning layered onto literal words is called, in linguistic parlance, the metamessage.  Further barriers to communication arise, because metamessage style varies between communities, making inter-group dialogue as much about understanding vocabulary as it is about understanding communication style and intent.

When metamessages are misinterpreted they can result in a phenomenon known as complementary schismogenesis.  Complementary schismogenesis occurs when miscommunication causes individuals to spiral into ever more hardened and extreme positions.  Example: An American man asks a Japanese woman out to lunch.  Japanese use indirect communication more than Americans, so when she responds by saying, “That might be nice to eat lunch together someday,” he is confused.  In her mind she’s told him “no” (using a metamessage), but in his mind she hasn’t really answered his question (no metamessage in his inbox).  In order to clarify, he becomes more direct with his questions.  Feeling uncomfortable, she responds with ever more indirect answers.

Likewise, when scientists explain climate science, they think they are simply clarifying what is known versus what is unknown (metamessage).  However, non-scientists may interpret the explanation differently- as a rationalization or justification of only one side of the argument (metamessage fail).  Therefore, miscommunication runs deeper than merely overusing technical vocabulary.  When scientists aggressively defend climate science, it creates the perception that it needs to be defended.  The more earnestly the facts are presented, the more the public questions them.  And complementary schismogenesis rears its ugly head.

Instead scientists should make a concerted effort to shift the conversation to discussing options for mitigating and adapting to the worst effects of climate change.  If the issue were re-framed in terms of dueling solutions, the media would still be able to balance their stories with opposing viewpoints, and the broader conversation could pivot away from denial nonsense to constructive solutions.  Unfortunately, with much of the public still stuck on debating the reality of climate change, near-term progress will necessarily be limited.

Lest you misinterpret my metamessage, I’ll state it directly: complementary schismogenesis is why we aren’t walking the walk.

Picture available from: http://insidethedrive.com/category/tom-fedro-paragon-software-data-storage/

Matthew Konfirst

Matt Konfirst is a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at the National Science Foundation. Prior to his 2012-13 fellowship year, he was a Byrd Postdoctoral Fellow at the Byrd Polar Research Center, Ohio State University. His research interests include Antarctic climate evolution and micropaleontology.

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Comments (1)

Judy Keen (not verified)
August 21, 2013 at 9:33 am
You raise a good point, Matt. Maybe we are having the wrong conversation. Focusing on solutions can propel us forward - and can get us off the endless and non-productive conversations that persist.

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